At a time of notorious local government austerity, it’s rare for councils to take the plunge and make big investments in leisure facilities. Those that do face intense scrutiny – and few will have been in the spotlight as much as Bracknell Forest Council (BFC) in Berkshire, which has closed its locally famous Coral Reef swimming pool for an 18-month long, £13m refurbishment.
Just as important as securing the right building contractors, and ordering flume rides from the Netherlands, is HR. Without the right staff in place to run the facility until closure in January 2016, and prepare for its anticipated reopening in August this year, the project would have been a disaster, says Kim Stevens, head of HR for BFC’s environment, culture and communities division. “We’d closed sites before, and we’d opened sites before – but we’d never had to close a site with a view to reopening it,” she says.
“It’s not like an office, where you can dwindle down the number of staff; if we had lost just two lifeguards, we would have had to start closing parts of the pool, which would have meant losing money and disappointing our customers. We had to keep as many staff as possible until the last day – and that meant designing a strategy to keep them engaged.”
That the centre needed renovating 27 years after it opened wasn’t a surprise to employees, but they were still anxious when the announcement was made in spring 2015. “For many of them, it was all they knew – they had worked there since leaving school, built their careers there and become part of a close, supportive community,” says senior HR adviser Alison Beswick.
Stevens’ emphasis on HR’s role in caring for employees, and Beswick’s previous experience – she had to make herself and a large team redundant at publisher Newsweek after working there for 20 years – shaped their approach to supporting staff.
Beswick was onsite at least one day a week for several months in the run up to the closure, was available for drop-in chats and scheduled formal meetings to suit employees’ shift patterns. “I understood what they were going through, and I think they trusted me, because I always did what I said I would,” she says. “It’s so simple, and yet so important.” Employees who weren’t going to be retained were offered support from the National Careers Service, CV writing workshops from union Unison and training that covered skills such as IT and starting your own business.
While the team had initially planned to transfer retained staff to another Bracknell leisure site to cover annual leave and sickness, “we realised people already working there often relied on overtime pay, so we had to look for other opportunities”, says Beswick. She approached other nearby leisure centres about taking on 16 employees for an 18-month secondment. “Trust was really important,” says Stevens, because the centres could have tried to hire these employees directly themselves. Formal secondment agreements were drawn up, and Beswick’s regular visits to the sites have helped ensure that any issues are resolved quickly. All staff are eager to return to Coral Reef, says Beswick – whose attention is now firmly on staffing up ahead of the summer opening.
A national shortage of qualified lifeguards is causing a particular headache. “It costs £250 and takes five days to train as a lifeguard, and candidates must pass an exam,” says Beswick. So to make it a more attractive option for jobseekers, the council is offering training reimbursements for new lifeguards who go on to get a job at Coral Reef. HR is also hosting stalls at local jobs fairs, visiting schools and colleges, and advertising on local Facebook pages.
“We’ve had to be quite creative,” adds Stevens. “It’s about getting the opportunities on people’s radars, because customers will be queuing out the door on day one – we have to be ready.” Using apprenticeship levy money to fund career development opportunities is just one trick that will make Coral Reef stand out as an employer.
As the project reaches its final lengths, Stevens and Beswick are reflecting on what went swimmingly and what didn’t. “Overall, the shutdown worked well,” says Stevens. “Staff were positive about it because of HR’s personal input, our commitment to building trust and our respect for employees’ dedication and goodwill. They saw us as a partner to work with – not a threat.”
However, they admit that communication between the main project team and HR could have been improved. “We had a delay between closing in January 2016 and building work starting in the summer. But we couldn’t mess the staff about and keep the site open for longer, so secondments had to begin shortly after closing,” says Stevens. “But we have learned. We’re flagging issues on projects earlier so they are on managers’ minds. We are being more assertive.”
Beswick agrees: “Sometimes HR can be an afterthought, so we have to keep pushing all the time. But I love making a difference. I’m too scared of failing not to try.”